The First Emperor panned at the Met, PLA to launch new missile test against opera critics from Chelsea

Okay, I made the second part up. It’s not unusual for Chinese to be upset over excessive (read: “any”) foreign criticism of China and things Chinese. It does seems odd however that there would be a flap over reviews for an opera starring a Spaniard and produced in New York. But you see it’s about China and the production involved some heavy-hitters in the Chinese arts community including Tan Dun (composer), Ha Jin (librettist), and Zhang Yimou (credited as “co-director.”) The First Emperor, an opera starring Placido Domingo as Qin Shihuangdi, opened at the Met in December of last year. Initial reaction in Beijing was enthusiastic but the notes turned sour when the New York opera critics had their turn.

“An enormous disappointment,” declared The New York Times of the score, adding that the vocal writing was “ill-conceived” and gave “soaring melody a bad name.” The New Yorker damned it all as “musical kitsch”

Explaining the strong ticket sales, NYT opera critic Anthony Tommasini, snidely suggested, “My guess is that a large number of the ticket-holders are opera neophytes attracted by the novelty of this project and hoping for a grand theatrical experience.” (Read Tommasini’s full review here.)

Well, that defender of culture the China Daily wasn’t going to let this insult to the Middle Kingdom’s first despot go unchallenged, they insisted that Tommasini “clarify” his criticisms. Fortunately, AT didn’t just send back a note saying: “It sucked.” He actually took the CD up on its challenge:

The opening scene did not disappoint. As the orchestra emitted an ominous, swelling tremolo, Wu Hsing-Kuo, a riveting singer from the Peking Opera tradition, playing the Yin-Yang Master, began telling the story of Qin…A battery of percussionists pounded ferocious rhythms on Chinese drums. Long-time Met-goers must have thought that such exotic sounds would never come from that hallowed stage.

Alas, once Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin appeared, the Chinese musical elements were overwhelmed by long stretches of tedious neo-Puccini, pentatonic lyricism…There were some compelling instrumental episodes evocative of Mr Tan’s pulsating, Oscar-winning film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But whole spans of the opera seem to float in some nowhere land between a martial arts film fantasy and Turandot.

Which no doubt caused quite a stir in the corridors of the China Daily as editors called out for a staff laowai to come and explain what the hell “pentatonic lyricism” meant.

Needless to say, the China Daily weren’t the only ones miffed by the reviews:

Perhaps because he worked hard to avoid them, Tan professed himself particularly annoyed by the Puccini comparisons. “Because Puccini used Chinese melody, no Chinese composer can use Chinese melody without being compared to Puccini!”

The man does have a point and he expands upon his comments further in the IHT article, suggesting, “Critics watch from the traditions of the past, but composers watch from the future.”

The China Daily then tried to have the last word: “Whatever people say about this opera, it is a historical milestone in cultural coalescence.”

In fairness, I haven’t seen the opera. Whether the criticism was fair or the New York press was being needlessly snarky is for others to decide. But I do think that the Chinese press is going to have to thicken its skin a wee bit in the coming years. This was just an opera and a couple of local theater critics. Anyone who lives in Beijing knows what’s coming during the 2008 Olympics: the inevitable puff pieces on life in the capital that will “expose to the world” many of the day-to-day realities that we’ve been writing about for years–litter, traffic, pollution, funny English, line chaos, etc. No matter how hard Beijing might try, and while things might be getting better, these problems are not magically going to disappear. So when the BBC does its first piece on the chaos at ticket windows at Olympic venues, or the Washington Post runs pictures of (the remaining) Chinglish signs, or NBC airs a segment on the effects of pollution on the athletes, China is going to have to take it in stride rather than kicking their feet on the floor and throwing a tantrum at every perceived insult to the motherland.

A sense of humor might help–seriously. (All they had to do was run more pictures of Domingo in costume. He looked like a foreign tourist who had been sucked into one of those tacky “Dress like a Manchu” photo booths at the Summer Palace.) The British are famous for being able to laugh at themselves. Americans don’t need to because we pay Canadians to do it for us. But the Chinese aren’t there yet. Just a thought: Lighten up, enjoy the music, and forget what the New York Times thinks. It’s probably not worth the paper it’s printed on…and after all, who invented paper and printing?

The Discussion: 17 Comments

It’s that thin skin and cry-baby maturity of 5000 years of continuous self-dilusion that make taking pot shots at China worthwhile.

February 14, 2007 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

Oh, crap! Please warn me in advance about Domingo dressed as a Manchu comparisons – I just spat out my wine giggling!

I’m bummed that this production seems to be a bust. I mean, Tan Dun, Zhang Yimou – I like those guys. I have to go by what my friend George says though. He’s a high school buddy. Lives in NYC. He honest to god knows practically every aria from every opera in existence. He’s a monster!

And he thought it was awful.

February 14, 2007 @ 4:48 pm | Comment

I haven’t seen the opera, either, but if Zhang Yimou is involved, I coud not possibly be surprised at the bad reviews. I mean, the man is like a Chinese James Joyce: Amazing talent displayed for all to see in his early works, an amazing talent wasted on pretentious bullshit in his later works. Or should I say James Joyce is an Irish Zhang Yimou?

February 14, 2007 @ 4:48 pm | Comment

A sense of humor? Can you imagine CCTV producing a Daily Show or Colbert Report-style parody laughing at its leaders? While this is exactly – exactly – what China needs, it is a long ways away. When they take themselves so seriously that an invisible Starbucks near the sacred Forbidden City – so sacred that everyone’s hero Madman Mao sought to raze it during the Cultural Revolution and was only stopped by the pleadings of Zhou Enlai – can whip them into a nationalistic frenzy, you know their sensitivities are a bit…off. Yes, I think the ability to laugh at oneself is essential to being mature, a healthy exercise we all should indulge in. As long as we exclude certain sacred cows, like Wagner and Abba. (Joke. I am laughing at myself. If I can do it, why can’t the seething and excitable masses of China?)

Meanwhile, the reviews you posted actually made me more curious than ever about the opera, and I hope to see it at the next opportunity.

February 14, 2007 @ 4:55 pm | Comment

Awww, not all of Zhang Yimou’s later movies are crap. It was when he watched “Crouching Tiger” and said to himself, “Tamade – I can do one of these big-ass wuxia flicks better than that Ang Lee dude” that he started slipping. I liked “Happy Times,” though it shifted tone a lot. It’s a pretty jaundiced view of modern China. And I have to admit, I thought Curse of the Golden Flower was fun, in an overwrought, Shakespeare in his Titus Andronicus phase kind of way. Certainly way better than Hero. I never did see Flying Daggers because I thought Hero was so lame.

I hear one of his newer, small scale films – I forget the name, but I have the DVD on order – is quite lovely. It stars a Japanese actor and takes place I think in Yunan.

February 14, 2007 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s 千里走单骑, and the English title as I recall is just the literal “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” I’ve heard good things about it too.

For what it’s worth, my favorite Zhang Yimou movie is probably 有话好好说/Be Cool, which is a complete mess in many ways but is also a lot of fun, and features Zhang himself in a cameo as a migrant worker with a funny accent. I liked Happy Times a lot too, in part because I’ve got a soft spot for Dongbei dialect and I like Zhao Benshan in pretty much everything he’s in.

Shifting the smack-talking from Zhang to Tan Dun: is it me, or does he reuse the EXACT SAME SCORE for every single movie he does? I mean, seriously — I know that ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he’s become a checklist figure (along with Zhang Ziyi and Yuen Wo-ping) to have on board any CTHD wannabe production, but he isn’t even trying! Crouching Tiger? Hero? The Banquet? They’ve all got the same cello line on the score!

Also, chriswaugh_bj: China invented James Joyce.

February 14, 2007 @ 5:25 pm | Comment

I hated Hero with a passion, and am convinced it was subsidized by the central committee.

Brendan, maybe you should add Jet Li to the checklist…?

February 14, 2007 @ 5:33 pm | Comment

Reading China Daily for its opera reviews is like reading What Bike magazine for the fashion spreads. Most of it is hongbao-driven puff pieces and the remainder is hackneyed nationalistic self congratulation. I once went to see a Chinese-English play called The Power in Beijing on the basis of an enthusiastic China Daily review. It was the most turgid and cliched rubbish I have ever seen on the stage – and believe me I have seen a lot of amateur/avant garde theatre.

February 14, 2007 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

Is anyone here familiar with the opera, Nixon in China? It’s a three act heroic opera with some great piece names, like “The people are the heroes now” and dialogue like,

Zhou: You’re flight was smooth I hope.

Nixon: Oh yes, smoother than usual, I guess. Yes, it was very pleasant. We stopped in Hawaii for a day and want to catch up on the time. It’s easier that way. The prime minister knows about that. He is such a traveler.

Zhou: No, not I. Not as a traveler. I’m home for good to China. One for whom all travel is a penance now. I am most proud to welcome you. I am most proud to welcome you.

February 14, 2007 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

Nixon in China is a true masterpiece, one of the great operatic events of the 20th century.

February 14, 2007 @ 10:01 pm | Comment

Chinese are notorious for having thin skin and like to save faces. Do you know that it is illegal to even make fun of their leaders in PR China?

February 15, 2007 @ 1:23 am | Comment

Oh, Kevin, you have hit upon one of my favorite pieces of music/theatrical experiences EVER. I had the incredible good fortune to see NIXON IN CHINA twice during its run at the LA Festival. The first time, my then boss had a ticket she didn’t want to use. I was so utterly transfixed and transported that I dragged a friend to another show and we got last minute tickets – excellent ones, towards the front of the orchestra section.

It’s not only beautiful, witty and historically accurate, I found it incredibly moving.

I, um, can sing most of the opera. I don’t mean I can sing it well, just that I know it pretty much by heart.

February 15, 2007 @ 1:32 am | Comment

*giggles at mental image of a corpulent Domingo stuffed into Chinese robes*

On a more serious note, I will weep with joy the day China decides to promote actual talent instead of these ossified peddlers of kitsch. (Ha Jin excepted.)

Also, Chris, I must protest the comparison to Joyce. Whatever you may think of him, Finnegans Wake, or his self-indulgent literary style (not to mention the dubious legacy he left on modern literature), you could at least say he was a rara avis who strove to sound notes off of the common scale.

Zhang Yimou, on the other hand, I’m beginning to think probably has always been a vulgarian at heart. (I mean, it’s not like I can blame his recent bout of awfulness on senility.)

February 15, 2007 @ 6:10 am | Comment

P.S. “A historical milestone in cultural coalescence”?

Excuse me, I just vomited a little bit in my mouth.

February 15, 2007 @ 6:12 am | Comment

I’ve noticed that many time, the Chinese media like to show Chinese who they have claimed are the great masters of the Western arts. Usually, when I look at what western critics think about these Chinese masters, they generally say that these artist are technically skilled but don’t have any of the spirit of the work. I’d agree with what I’ve seen, in my unprofessional opinion.

February 15, 2007 @ 11:04 am | Comment

I stand by my Joyce-Zhang comparison.

千里走单骑/Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is ok, not a bad film, but not up to ‘To Live’ or ‘Red Sorghum’ sort of standards. 有话好好说/Be Cool and Happy Times I would love to see, but I have yet to come across copies. If I see them, I’ll grab them with both hands and some how punch in the face any DVD seller who objects.

Brendan: The IRA is on to you.

February 15, 2007 @ 3:58 pm | Comment

Raise the Red Lantern is one of the best films made in many years, by anyone. Make sure you watch that.

February 15, 2007 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

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